It was 6:30 in the morning, and the skies, although a bit cloudy, were slowly turning blue with the sun peeking in over the Polo River around Tagalag Eco Park, Valenzuela, a bird-watching spot only an hour away from Quezon City. Around 30 people in hats, with cameras hanging from their necks, and binoculars in hand came to join a guided bird-watching tour at the riverside.
A misconception in birding or bird-watching is that people have to go to forests or rural areas just to see birds. Mike Lu, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and tour organizer for over 20 years, argues that birds can be found everywhere, even in the urban areas of Metro Manila.
“Bird-watching is simply observing birds in their habitat and not in cages. We do guided tours to raise awareness about the accessibility of the rich birdlife in the country,” said Lu.
The Philippines is an archipelago comprised of over 7,000 islands and this geographic characteristic supports a wide variety of bird species, making the country a global biodiversity hotspot. The islands are home to over 200 endemic bird species not found anywhere else in the world, even ranking fourth in bird endemism. On top of this, the country’s location makes it a key migration spot for birds during the winter season.
Growing up interested in nature and wildlife, Lu says there were very few books showcasing Philippine wildlife. Most only had examples of animals found in the West, often limited to giraffes and zebras.
“I got disappointed because I can’t see these animals locally, until one day I found the “Birds of the Philippines” book and I realized that we have so many birds I had never seen before,” said Lu.
He then began bird-watching in Metro Manila after finding out that government offices did not monitor wildlife data in the cities.
“It’s a hobby that has a purpose. We recorded 30 species in the first year, 60 in the second, and 120 in the third. We later built up a database with the Department of Natural Resources,” said Lu.
They identified Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center, the University of the Philippines Diliman, and Las Piñas–Parañaque Wetland Park as some good places to begin bird-watching.
“You can even do bird watching in cemeteries because birds stay in quiet and less crowded places,” he said.
During the two-hour guided tour in Tagalag Eco Park, the participants were able to see a total of 135 birds from 22 different species ranging from common ones such as the eurasian moorhen and collared kingfisher to more rare species such as the wandering whistling duck, pheasant-tailed jacana, and blue-tailed bee-eater.
The tour was an easy walk on a cemented path of less than a kilometer around the riverside. It’s similar to just sitting on a bench and looking over the river. Lu would mount his spotting scope and watch birds around the vicinity. Participants are free to look through his scope or their binoculars.
The participants came from varying backgrounds. Some were families with children, teachers, biologists, first-timers, and bird-watching hobbyists.
Jed Torres Bahaynon, a virtual assistant and a mother of two, brought her family because her nine-year-old son was very curious to learn about birds. It was her son who told her about the Wild Bird Club Community, which he read from the locally published book “Bagwis," a story on a wildlife rescue of an eaglet.
“We always join nature trips to expose our kids to their environment, especially since our son is very interested in everything,” said Bahaynon. "This is our first time bird-watching, and it was an eye-opener experience for all of us. When we went home, my son said he wanted to become a nature rescuer."
Mark David de Guzman, a biology teacher and returning participant said that during his first visit, they only saw 13 species so it was always exciting for him to join different bird tours as the birds vary per visit.
“However, the number of these birds in urban areas is dwindling because of factors such as climate change and habitat destruction,” said de Guzman. “Bird-watching reminds people that we coexist with wildlife, and it’s important to include wildlife in crafting policies because if we don’t protect these birds, especially the endemic ones in our country, the future generation won’t be able to see them.”
Habitat loss is the reason for bird extinction. Lu recalled that before large malls, hotels, and casinos were built along Seaside Boulevard, Pasay City, the area sheltered a lot of grassland birds. Currently, nearby areas around Valenzuela are threatened by reclamation.
“One of the reasons why we do bird-watching is to spread awareness by letting people admire and enjoy birds. This hopefully turns into an advocacy to protect the birds’ natural habitat,” said Lu.
For those interested in starting birding, he advises people to join at least one guided bird-watching tour to know how and where to look for the birds. Wild Bird Club of the Philippines schedules tours for ₱200 per head inclusive of a pair of binoculars for rent.
“You don’t even have to go out of Manila, because most of the time, birds are already in front of us, we just don’t see them because mostly they’re just resting on fences or trees,” added Lu.